Who Was Lady Godiva?

First Written for Headstuff.ie

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In the centre of Coventry, a midlands city in England, there is a statue of a woman astride a horse, her head bowed, unclothed except for her long hair. Across the road, at the top of a slate grey brick clock tower every hour, on the hour, a smaller version of the woman on the horse circles underneath the caricature of a man with binoculars leering over her. They are Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom.

Every place has its own mythology and for Coventry the Lady Godiva story is a vital part of the city’s historical consciousness. It is a story that every school child learns and every migrant to the city becomes acquainted with. However, how much does the story fit with the historical facts and why has this story lived so long in the city’s memory?

Growing up in Coventry, this is the version of the story I was told: Lady Godiva was the wife of Earl Leofric, Lord of Mercia in the eleventh century. Leofric, a very powerful and influential man enforced heavy taxes on his people. Unable to pay Godiva pleaded their case, begging her husband to remove the taxes. He refused, eventually turning around and declaring that if she rode through the market place naked he would alleviate the citizen’s financial burden. Amazingly she took him up on this. One day, clothed only by her long hair, she rode through the market place in the middle of the day. Out of respect, every citizen shut themselves away and promised not to look, so as to preserve her modesty. One man however reneged on this. His name was Tom, and he took a peep, viewing her naked body. After the ride he was dragged into the market square and blinded by the angry citizens. Having completed her challenge Leofric removed the hated taxes, and Godiva became a local hero. This version however differs significantly from the facts.

Lady Godiva and her husband Earl Leofric were one of the last powerful noble families of the pre-Norman period in England. In old English, the name Godiva translates as Godgifu, meaning ‘gift of God’. She was independently powerful and wealthy. Leofric was one of the three great Earls of the eleventh century, responsible for ruling over the kingdom of Mercia. At the time Coventry was a very small place consisting of only 69 families and a monastery. Importantly Godiva actually owned Coventry outright and would have been responsible for setting taxes herself. This undermines the traditional story. Further the only two known taxes at the time were taxes on stabling horses and the Heregeld; a tax everyone had to pay to contribute towards upkeep of the king’s bodyguard. It was not possible for this tax to be removed and if Godiva choose to pay it on behalf of her citizens then there would have been no need for the naked horse ride.

The Anglo – Saxons had very different attitudes to nobility and gender compared with the incoming Normans. The first written records of the story date from the thirteenth century. Written from the Norman perspective it offered a less than glowing account of the previous Anglo – Saxon rulers, most of whom had been displaced after the invasion. This is significant as it helps to explain why the tale removes much of Godiva’s agency, independence and wealth. Similarly it is also at pains to paint Leofric in a negative light, as the heartless landlord oppressing his tenants. Arguably part of the reason for this is to show the Normans in a better light, rewriting history in their favour. It is worth noting at this juncture that divorce existed in Anglo – Saxon society and it was not unheard of for noble women to divorce their husbands if given reason to. If Leofric had indeed been so cold and cruel this is an option that Godiva could have availed upon.

References made to the couple during their lifetime and shortly after make no mention of the horse ride, and instead emphasise their wealth and piety. They were known for giving generously to religious houses, founding a Benedictine monastery in the town in 1043 (The monastery was later destroyed in the Reformation period). They also donated land to the monastery of Saint Mary in Worcester and Lady Godiva was known for donating her own jewellery, along with gold and silver, to churches and religious homes. On her death she left her own heavy gold chain, a sign of her status, to a local church, with the instruction that a prayer be said for each chain link. It appears that they were very generous with their wealth. Lady Godiva is the first woman to be recorded in the Domesday book, the great survey ordered by William the Conqueror to map and number the population, property and wealth of his new land. It was completed in 1087. Unusually she kept her wealth and land after his ascension even though William confiscated the land and property of most existing English nobles. It was noted that she had holdings in Leicester, Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire. Godiva must have been a powerful and popular woman to retain her property, especially as by this point she was a widow, Leofric having died in 1057. The date of Godiva’s death is unknown. Often cited as 1067 it has been argued to be anything between this date and 1086.

Peeping Tom and Lady Godiva

The story first dates from the thirteenth century when it was recorded by monk and collector of anecdotes Roger of Wendover in his Flores Historiarum. It is known that Wendover died in 1236, so the story must predate this. There are no surviving records of the story from before this. Historians place very little credibility in Wendover’s account. He was known to collect unusual stories and often stretched the truth beyond breaking point. This version differs from later versions. In Wendover’s story Godiva passed through the market attended by two knights. The people of Coventry were assembled but kept their eyes closed. Here is an extract from Flores Historiarum:

‘The Countess Godiva devoutly anxious to free the city of Coventry from a grievous and base thralldom often besought the Count, her husband, that he would for love of the Holy Trinity and the sacred Mother of God liberate it from such servitude. But he rebuked her for vainly demanding a thing so injurious to himself and forbade her to move further therein. Yet she, out of her womanly pertinacity, continued to press the matter insomuch that she obtained this answer from him: “Ascend,” he said, “thy horse naked and pass thus through the city from one end to the other in sight of the people and on thy return thou shalt obtain thy request.” Upon which she returned: “And should I be willing to do this, wilt thou give me leave?” “I will,” he responded. Then the Countess Godiva, beloved of God, ascended her horse, naked, loosing her long hair which clothed her entire body except her snow white legs, and having performed the journey, seen by none, returned with joy to her husband who, regarding it as a miracle, thereupon granted Coventry a Charter, confirming it with his seal’.

A different account came in the sixteenth century from Richard Grafton, M.P. for Coventry. The fiercely Protestant Grafton recorded a sanitised version of the story to better suit his, and his audiences, sensibilities. There are similarities though between this version and Wendover’s:

‘she returned to her Husbande from the place from whence she came, her honestie saued, her purpose obteyned, her wisdome much commended, and her husbands imagination vtterly disappointed. And shortly after her returne, when shee had arayed and apparelled her selfe in most comely and seemly manner, then shee shewed her selfe openly to the peuple of the Citie of Couentrie, to the great joy and maruellous reioysing of all the Citizens and inhabitants of the same, who by her had receyued so great a benefite’.

The introduction of the voyeur famously to be known as Peeping Tom is more recent, 17th century, addition. Here is an extract from the account of Humphrey Wanley (1672-1726):

‘In the Forenoone all householders were Commanded to keep in their Families shutting their doores & Windows close whilest the Duchess performed this good deed, which done she rode naked through the midst of the Towne, without any other Coverture save only her hair. But about the midst of the Citty her horse neighed, whereat one desirous to see the strange Case lett downe a Window, & looked out, for which fact, or for that the horse did neigh, as the cause thereof. Though all the Towne were Franchised, yet horses were not toll-free to this day’.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson later further romanticised the story with his poem Godiva, written in 1840 and published in 1842. The lengthy poem emphasised Godiva’s virtues, particularly her chastity, for his Victorian audience.

‘… loathed to see them overtax’d; but she
Did more, and underwent, and overcame,
The woman of a thousand summers back,
Godiva, wife to that grim Earl, who ruled
In Coventry: for when he laid a tax
Upon his town, and all the mothers brought
Their children, clamouring, “If we pay, we starve!”
She sought her lord, and found him

‘“Then she rode back, clothed on with chasity;
And one low churl, compact of thankless earth,
The fatal byword of all years to come,
Boring a little auger-hole in fear,
Peep’d – but his eyes, before they had their will,
Were shrivell’d into darkness in his head,
And dropt before him.’

In these sources there are several themes that carry through the centuries. The first is the depiction of Lady Godiva herself. She is seen as being modest, chaste and brave. Further Leofric is also described in negative terms, as the cruel, cold husband and landlord that forces Godiva to do something that would have been seen as pretty extreme in order to help and protect the people of Coventry from his greed.

Edmund-Blair-Leighton-Lady-Godiva

Over time historians have presented some possible explanations as to why this story has both been constructed and attached to Lady Godiva. For example pagan rituals were intertwined with Christianity at this time and the story bears some resemblance to fertility rituals. In the eleventh century Christianity and paganism were still closely interlinked. Following on from this it was also known for penitents to make a public procession to atone for their sins. The deeply pious Godiva may have made her way through the town before halting at the shrine of Saint Osburga, a nun who was killed several centuries earlier in a Viking attack. Alternatively the reference to nakedness could suggest she had removed her jewellery and other signs of her station. It is possible that stories and rituals of this manner occurred and over time became associated with Godiva, before passing into folk history.

Daniel Donoghue, author of one of the few works on Lady Godiva: Lady Godiva: A Literary History of the Legend has stated that ‘nobody knows quite why the legend was invented and attached to her name but it does seem to function as a kind of myth of origin for the town of Coventry’. It is telling that the statue was erected in 1949. Much of Coventry was destroyed in the 1940 Blitz and even more was wiped away by the town planners that rebuilt the city. It is significant that this statue has avoided all recent regeneration and rebuilding and remains the centrepiece for Coventry. Lady Godiva fits into the city image of personal sacrifice, martyrdom, of a victim rising from the flames that had become so important during the war years and helped to embed the story of Godiva in Coventry’s cultural consciousness.

Ned Kelly and the Jerilderie Letter

First Written for Headstuff September 2016

https://www.google.co.jp/search?q=ned+kelly&client=ms-android-samsung&prmd=ivn&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiIpcjl1YnPAhVn5oMKHRmJD-kQ_AUIBygB&biw=360&bih=560#imgrc=Nvs5h0fAlEvd9M%3A

“Dear Sir, I wish to acquaint you with some of the occurrences of the present past and future.” This is how infamous Australian outlaw Ned Kelly began what has become known as the Jerilderie letter, or his confessions. Coming in at nearly 8,000 words this letter, dictated by Kelly to fellow member of his gang Joe Byrne offers a rare glimpse into the life one of Australia’s most famous sons. Alongside his statement made to the police after his arrest, this is the only other document in which we hear his own words.

Jerilderie was a pivotal place in the lives of the Kelly gang. This is where, in January of 1879 the gang undertook two large armed robberies, the second being in Jerilderie, New South Wales. At this point in time the public were largely supportive of the gang despite the fact that they were responsible for the deaths of three police officers from a confrontation in Stringybark Creek, October 1878. Shortly before the robbery in Jerilderie twenty three suspected Kelly sympathisers were rounded up and arrested leading to public anger and the quick release of the prisoners. At this time, the gang had evaded the police and the letter suggests that Kelly wanted to explain and justify the murders. He seemed at pains to be understood. This was not new: Kelly had a history of writing to the authorities explaining his side of things when he felt let down or misjudged by the legal system.

After the events of Stringybark Creek the ransom for the gang had risen significantly from £2000 to £8000, dead or alive. It is possible that as a result of this, the gang started to become more fearful of being betrayed to the police in return for such a life changing sum of money. This may in part explain Kelly’s words on those who would betray him or his associates. He argued that he had never “interfered with any person unless they deserved it”, though if provoked he would not hold back:

“But by the light that shines pegged on an ant bed with their bellies opened their fat taken out rendered and poured down their throat boiling hot, will be fool to what pleasure I will give some of them and any person aiding or harbouring or assisting the police in any way whatever or employing any person whom they know to be a detective or cad or those who would be so depraved as to take blood money will be outlawed and declared unfit to be allowed human burial their property either consumed or confiscated and them and theirs and all belonging to them exterminated of the face of the earth”.

These strong words make his case clear and would prevent many a have – a – go – hero from trying to take him on, however they also foreshadow future events. On the 25th June 1880 the gang executed a former friend and ally turned police informer Aaron Sherritt. Sherritt was shot dead by the gang even though he had four well-armed police men in his home for protection.

https://www.google.co.jp/search?q=ned+kelly+jerilderie&client=ms-android-samsung&prmd=imvn&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjKs7zA2InPAhVi9IMKHa7uAyAQ_AUIBygB&biw=360&bih=560#imgrc=j0Q5BR-U4yBL9M%3A

Kelly details how his life, and that of his family, had been affected by disputes with the law for many years. His father was an Irishman, John ‘Red’ Kelly who, at the age of twenty-two, was transported to Van Diemen’s Land for stealing two pigs from his native County Tipperary in 1841. After his release in 1848, he married Ellen Quinn, the daughter herself of Irish immigrants. They went on to have eight children with Kelly being the third. His father died in his mid-forties shortly after being released from another stint of hard labour. This time the six months captivity seems to have wrought damage on his health, leading to his death.

It was not long before Kelly, now joint head of the household with his mother, would attract the attention of the police. When he was around 14 Kelly was arrested after a disagreement over a horse. The Jerilderie letter proclaims his innocence of this and future crimes that marked his teenage years. Aged 15 Kelly found himself in disagreement with, a Mr McCormack who referred to how he could have Kelly “or any of my breed” punished as he saw fit. Although said in a tense heightened atmosphere this still shows the prejudice and stratification of society in existence in the colony. McCormack accused Kelly and an associate, Gould, of using his horse without permission. As the altercation escalated Kelly punched McCormack. This resulted in his first prison sentence. As early as this he suggests that there was a certain amount of prejudice against him from the police authorities. Importantly whilst maintaining his innocence he does make it clear that “I hit him and I would do the same to him if he challenged me”.

Animosity towards the police pervades his Jerilderie letter. This is largely the result of his personal experiences; however it does give one an insight into policing of rural towns in the second half of the nineteenth century. For those from small, poverty stricken communities, often made up of emigrants and those who were transported for acts of criminality, there was long running resentment towards authority. This often manifested itself in the actions of the bushranger, members of the rural poor who eschewed the life prescribed for them and bucked from the yoke of the British legal system for a life of crime in the bush. Immigrants and their descendants often held on to their ethnicity and culture. This is particularly important when one considers that by this point resentment had built up in the general population regarding the amount of manpower and expense funding the attempts to capture or kill the Kelly gang. The police were being paid double time and were working increased hours. Although it would not be surprising that the police would want to hunt down the men responsible for the murder of several of their own, the resultant cost of this actually encouraged sympathy for the gang with many disagreeing with the police focus on them.

This runs alongside the undercurrent of anti-British sentiment that was nourished in the colony. The language and imagery of the Irish man living under British colonialism finds expression in the letter. In a continuation of his anger towards the police Kelly ponders the action he may one day be compelled to take against them.

“I will be compelled to show some colonial stratagem which will open the eyes of not only the Victorian Police and inhabitants but also the whole British army and no doubt they will acknowledge their hounds were barking at the wrong stump and that Fitzpatrick will be the cause of greater slaughter to the Union Jack than Saint Patrick was to the snakes and toads in Ireland, The Queen of England was as guilty as Baumgarten and Kennedy, Williamson and Skillion of what they were convicted for”.

The Kelly gang were active between 1878 and 1880. As the son of an Irish criminal, sent thousands of miles away from his homeland, it is not very surprising that feelings of dissatisfaction and blame towards the British establishment flourished in the new, harsh environment that many found themselves in. It is also important to note that at the time many Irish in Australia would have been living with their own and cultural memories of the Great Famine still raw and exposed. The famine resulted in the deaths of approximately two million from starvation and disease, with another two million estimated to have emigrated. ‘Red’ Kelly and his family arguably fit into the theme of the Irish diaspora; banished from ones homeland for a relatively small matter. How many, after their period of imprisonment was completed, would be able to make the journey home? And even if they could what would they have found there in the years after the famine wrought devastation on Ireland.

For many such as ‘Red’ a seven year sentence meant he would never see his homeland again. In this light it is hardly surprising that Irish (and Irish Catholic) patriotism, often established in opposition to British rule was common in the colony. Kelly questions in his letter,

“What would England do if America declared war and hoisted a green flag as it is all Irishmen that has got command army forts of her batterys even her very life guards and beef tasters are Irish would they not slew round and fight her with their own arms for the sake of the color they dare not wear for years and to reinstate it and rise old Erins isle once more from the pressure and tyrannism of the English yoke and which has kept in poverty and starvation and caused them to wear the enemys coat. What else can England expect is there not big fat necked unicorns enough paid to torment and drive me to do things which I don’t wish to do”.

The Kelly families long history with the police continued when Kelly was a young adult. He was first arrested and tried for theft and assault aged fourteen. He was acquitted but went on to associate with well-known bushranger Harry Power who had been taken to the bush after escaping from Pentridge Gaol. It is likely that Kelly would have been bought up hearing stories of bushrangers and their exploits, which were often highly romanticised, and would have been well acquainted with the lifestyle that came with it. Kelly was given his first prison sentence aged only fifteen.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/41/Ned_Kelly_aged_15.jpg

In 1870 he was sentenced to three years hard labour for horse theft. By this time he had become a familiar face to his local police force, having faced and defeated charges multiple times already. One of the few photographs of him from this time show a well-built, heavy set man. His exact date of birth is unsure and many suspected that he was actually several years older by his imposing stature.

This conflict intensified. From the letter it is clear that Kelly felt he and his family had been the target of anti – Irish bigotry and were the focus of continual police persecution; an act by which the wealthier agriculturalists and members of the burgeoning Victorian establishment trod on the poor. However by the time Kelly fled his home for the bush the situation had escalated. On April 15 1878 what has become known as ‘The Fitzpatrick Incident’ occurred in the Kelly family home.

Constable Fitzpatrick visited the Kelly home that night. The reasons for this are disputed but Fitzpatrick stated he was there to issue an arrest warrant to Kelly’s younger brother Dan for horse stealing. What happened afterwards is touched upon in the letter. A fracas ensued and Kelly’s mother Ellen, along with two other associates Bricky Williamson and Bill Skillion were arrested and charged with the attempted murder of Fitzpatrick, who had been shot twice. There is an often repeated myth that this incident occurred because the family were trying to protect one of the younger sisters from Fitzpatrick’s unwanted sexual advances. However this is denied by both Fitzpatrick and Kelly. The constable stated that when he was guarding Dan when two horsemen came up to the property. Kelly then burst through the door and shot the policeman. In the ensuing scuffle he was overpowered by the family; including Ellen. Kelly gives a different version of events in the letter.

He continues with the theme of police brutality and argues that Fitzpatrick pointed a gun at his mother when he came to apprehend Dan. Kelly himself was not on the scene. “The trooper pulled out his revolver and said he would blow her brains out if she interfered in the arrest she told him it was a good job for him Ned was not there or he would ram the revolver down his throat”. As a result of this Williamson and Skillion were sentenced to six years hard labour apiece. Ellen, who was taken into custody along with her baby Alice, was sentenced to three years hard labour. This deepened Kelly’s sense of injustice; he maintained that Fitzpatrick had falsified evidence to ensure that members of his family would be punished.

Even at the time Ellen’s sentence was popularly viewed as being very harsh and unfair. Kelly, who seems to have felt that had he been there the police would not have been so quick to threaten his family had this to say:

“but they knew well I was not there or I would have scattered their blood and brains like rain I would manure the Eleven mile with their bloated carcases and yet remember there is not one drop of murderous blood in my veins … my brothers and sisters and my mother not to be pitied also who was has no alternative only to put up with the brutal and cowardly conduct of a parcel of big ugly fat necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hipped splawfooted sons of Irish bailiffs or English landlords which is better known as Officers of Justice or Victorian Police who some calls honest gentlemen but I would like to know what business an honest man would have in the Police”.

It was after this incident that Dan joined Kelly in the bush and he officially became an outlaw.

The letter also exposes the difficulty many former convicts faced in trying to reintegrate back into society. Once he had been labelled a criminal, whether guilty, convicted, or not, it seems almost impossible for Kelly to hold down a legal job. With inevitability, whenever something went missing or wrong, he was the first person to be blamed. This is something he explored in the letter and is an issue that is still pertinent today. Kelly said that he “ran in a wild bull which I gave to Lydicher a farmer he sold him to Carr a Publican and Butcher who killed him for beef some time afterwards I was blamed for stealing this bull from James Whitty Boggy Creek”.

Further to this one line in the letter, an aside to the wider argument against the police feels chilling when read today. In detailing the injustices of certain members of the police receiving high salaries to protect the population that they steal from and brutalise, Kelly had this to say:

“if so why not send the men that gets big pay and reckoned superior to the common police after me and you shall soon save the country of high salaries to men that is fit for nothing else but getting better men than himself shot and sending orphan children to the industrial school to make Prostitutes for the Detectives and other evil disposed persons send the high paid men that receive big salaries for years in a gang by themselves”.

Kelly grew up with his family and did not attend an industrial school, but this one line suggests that there was a general knowledge of the abuses going on against children in institutions at the time. In light of what we now know, this is a deeply troubling line to read. This feeling is heightened by the fact that it is buried in the confession and is only mentioned in order to reinforce the belief in police brutality.

For many Kelly has become a kind of Robin Hood figure; a poor working man fighting against the system. The gang were well known for their good treatment of civilians and hostages. During the final Glenrowan siege it is recorded that no civilian hostages were hurt by the gang and those that did sustain injuries were shot by the police. Near the close of the Jerilderie letter one can see where this idea came from: “all those that have reason to fear me had better sell out and give £10 out of every hundred to the widow and orphan fund and do not attempt to reside in Victoria”.

Ned Kelly’s place in Australian history and culture is undisputed. The worlds very first full length narrative film was about Kelly and the history of his gang. So often in popular culture, despite the dead and prison sentences behind him, he is viewed as one of the last free, wild men; he represents the end of the bushranger era. As Australian society moved inevitably towards a more urban way of life Kelly is often hailed as a reminder of a different, heavily mythologised time. The letter ends on one final message, words underlined for emphasis: “I do not wish to give the order full force without giving timely warning but I am a Widow’s Son, outlawed and my orders must be obeyed”.

Saint Valentine: How Love’s Martyr Came to Dublin

Originally Written for Headstuff.ie July 2016

Dublin’s Whitefriar Street Church is home to one of the most popular modern Saint’s: Saint Valentine. A shrine dedicated to the Saint has pride of place in the church and his remains are put on display every February 14th, but how though did this Roman Saint make his way to Dublin?

Religious relics have long been an important part of the Christian tradition. The word “relic” is derived from the Latin word “Reliquus” which means “left behind”. A relic is a physical or personal memorial of a Saint or religious figure. In Catholic doctrine first class relics are those which are directly associated with Jesus’ life and the physical remains of a saint, with a body part being particularly highly prized. A second class relic is an item that was worn or frequently used by the saint and a third class relic is any object that has been touched by a first or second class relic. Therefore in these terms the relic of Saint Valentine held in Whitefriar Street Church is a prized first class relic as Dublin is home to some of the saints’ blood.

Source

During the Middle Ages there was a boom in the popularity of religious relics as churches and religious institutions vied to be associated with the most holy items they could find. Relics were thought to act not just as a reminder of the life of the martyred but also to help guide worshippers to God. As a result of this competition, churches began to create their own relics. At one point the ardent traveller on pilgrimage could seek out the head of John the Baptist, Jesus’ foreskin and doubting Thomas’ finger. Even though the sale of relics was forbidden under Canon Law the industry continued to thrive until the effects of the Reformation rippled across Europe. A side effect of this is that it became harder to authenticate relics. When there are seven different churches claiming to have the head of John the Baptist it becomes increasingly difficult to decide which was genuine.

The origin of Saint Valentine is still debated as few facts have survived the centuries. In the third century AD a priest called Valentine was executed by the Roman Emperor Claudius II outside the Flaminian Gate on February 14th 269. Other sources suggest the date could have been 270, 273 or 280. He was then buried on the Via Flaminia to the north of Rome. Valentine was martyred for his Christian faith. The Emperor had decreed that his soldiers would be better warriors if they remained single and unmarried. However Valentine courted danger by secretly marrying couples in Christian ceremonies. At one point the ardent traveller on pilgrimage could seek out the head of John the Baptist, Jesus’ foreskin and doubting Thomas’ finger. The Catholic Church also argue that at the same time Valentine developed a relationship with the Emperor in order to encourage an interest in Christianity. It is also important to note that polyamory was relatively common in Rome at this time and Valentine’s actions were going against the norm. Claudius eventually became enraged at the flouting of his rules and gave Valentine a choice: renounce his faith or be beaten with clubs and beheaded. He refused to renounce his faith and was executed. Like most saints he is venerated for his dedication to his Christian beliefs, even though it resulted in his death.

Source

Archaeologists have unearthed a Roman catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to Saint Valentine which some argue proves his existence as an early pioneer of Christianity. In recognition of his martyrdom in 496 AD Pope Gelasius marked February 14th as a day to celebrate the now Saint Valentine. This came at a time when Rome was still trying to establish itself as the centre of Christianity and it is likely that part of the reason for this was to overpower the pagan, and decidedly non – Christian, celebration of Lupercalia which had been celebrated on the 13th – 15th of February.

Over the centuries his bones have been scattered across Europe. While the flower – crowned skull has long been a resident of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome, his relics were exhumed from the catacombs of Saint Hippolytus on the Via Tiburtina. They were identified as belonging to Saint Valentine. Originally the Saint’s relics were housed in the Church and Catacombs of San Valentino in Rome before being transferred to the church of Santa Prassede.

In 1835-6 Father John Spratt, a renowned preacher and Irish Carmelite visited Rome where he was well received by the Roman elite. He was gifted a small vessel tinged with Saint Valentine’s blood, presented to him by Pope Gregory XVI. The vial was transported for a special Mass dedicated to those young and in love, eventually arriving in Dublin on November 10th 1836. The reliquary (shrine) was received by Archbishop Murray of Dublin. It was decided they would remain in Whitefriar Street Church; a popular church in the centre of Dublin. After the death of Father Spratt in 1871 interest in the relics diminished and they were placed into storage.

 

Saint Valentine, the body of Christ and four weary souls. Source

Major renovation works to the church in the 1950 – 60s led to the rediscovery of the relics. They were then placed in a specially built altar and shrine. The Catholic Church was still in its zenith in Ireland at the time and it is likely that the relics would have been considered a bonus attraction for the popular city centre church. Due to the limited information available about the life of Valentine the Roman Catholic Church removed him from the General Roman Calendar in 1969. However he is still recognised as a Saint and remains very popular. At present the remains are kept under lock and key but lovebirds can pay them a visit each year on February 14th when they are placed before the church’s high altar and venerated at the Masses. This is one of the few religious connections to Saint Valentine that remains.

However Dublin doesn’t have the only claim to Valentine. In 2003 other alleged relics were found in Prague at the Church of Saint Peter and Paul at Vysehrad. Fragments of his skull are to be found in a silver reliquary in the parish church of Saint Mary’s Assumption in Chelmno, Poland. Alleged relics of Saint Valentine also lie at the reliquary of Roquemaure, Gard, France; in the Stephansdom Cathedral, Vienna, in Balzan in Malta, in Blessed John Duns Scotus’ church in the Gorbals area of Glasgow, Scotland and also in Saint Anton’s Church in Madrid. They (allegedly) arrived in Madrid as a present to King Carlos IV from Pope Pious VI. The relics have been on display since 1984.

Many of the remains have been placed on more prominent display in the twentieth century. Arguably this has little to do with their religious connections and more to do with attracting tourists. However it is possible that in this increasingly secular age people value the physical manifestation of their faith more and more. And of course the fact that there is an interesting story behind it cannot hurt. As Valentine’s Day becomes both increasingly commercial and derided it is possible that many seek a more ‘authentic’, physical experience of devotion and love. For some these remains symbolise the importance of marriage and of sanctifying your relationship in front of God.

consumerism

In an interesting twist at the same time that visiting the remains of Valentine has grown in popularity, so has the desire to rebel against the view of love and profit that has come to define February 14th. This is perhaps best typified by the fact that divorce filings arise by around 40% this time each year with The Webb Law Centre in Charleston, USA, offering one lucky (or unlucky depending on your point of view) couple a free Valentine’s Day divorce. Running for eight consecutive years the person who presents “the most compelling story” and has the fewest complications wins.

The spread of the remains across Europe highlights the continuing popularity of the Saint but also the desire individual churches have to be associated with something so holy, a direct physical link to the early years of the church. Further it shows a continuing appetite among the public to be able to see and visit the dead saints that over time have become a part of their cultural and religious narrative. In some cases there are also more nefarious attractions to the relics. One of the reasons that the Valentine reliquary is kept under lock and key is because of the fear of theft. Several religious items have been stolen in Ireland over the past few years. In October 2011 decorative crosses, made from bronze, silver and gold were stolen from Holy Cross Abbey in County Tipperary. They were said to contain fragments of the cross on which Jesus was sacrificed. In March 2012 the preserved heart of Saint Laurence O’Toole, the patron Saint of Dublin, was stolen at night from Christ Church Cathedral Dublin. It seems that for one reason or another relics have, and are likely to, retain their popularity and importance in modern Ireland.

“This is a place of amusement, not a chamber of horrors”: The Battle of the Somme Film (1916)

First Written for Headstuff June 2016

On the 10th of August 1916, a new film premiered in London’s Scala Theatre. This in itself was not unusual. Even during war time, the entertainment industry remained active. What was unusual was that this film marked the first time a recording made in a war zone was shown to the public before the battle in question had come to an end. The Battle of the Somme documentary and propaganda film would prove to be one of the most controversial, shocking and realistic depictions of the war that the British public had ever seen.

By January 1916, conscription had become necessary, and as the war continued, the roll of propaganda became increasingly important to act as a counterpoint to the lists of dead and damaged soldiers returning home from the front.

The war was supposed to have been over by Christmas 1914. As it dragged on, the patriotic fervour that marked the first months receded. By this point there was little left of the marching bands making their way through town and city streets to a chorus of cheers; men standing tall in their bright, and as yet unbloodied, uniforms. The attempt to portray the war as an old fashioned ‘all boys adventure’ had had some early success thanks to peer pressure and propaganda posters. Perhaps the most famous being the Lord Kitchener poster stating boldly: “Your Country Needs You”.

Many of the posters from the early months of the war also attempted to appeal to ideas of masculinity with slogans such as: “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” and “Women of Britain Say ‘Go!’”. In Dublin, recruitment officers went house to house with money in their hands to encourage the poor to sign up. However, by January 1916, conscription had become necessary. At first it was for single men, and shortly after for married men aged 18 – 41. As the war continued, the roll of propaganda became increasingly important to act as a counterpoint to the lists of dead and damaged soldiers returning home from the front.

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This year sees the centenary of the Battle of the Somme – the largest battle of the First World War. Its name resonates down the years, symbolising the futility of war; the thousands ordered to walk to their deaths in No Man’s Land. The battle began at dawn on the 1st of July and crawled to its end on the 18th of November. Before the Allies went over the top, there had been a sustained bombardment of German lines intended to destroy the barbed wire and enemy defences, clearing the path for the advance. This attempt failed. The German trenches were barely touched by the shells and the barbed wire remained intact. In the end, all the bombardment had done was to alert the Germans to an oncoming attack, giving them time to prepare. Not expecting any opposition, the order to go over the top was issued. This resulted in one of the bloodiest battles continental Europe had ever seen.

geoffery malins

Although the total number of Irish dead is still uncertain, nearly 2,000 soldiers were killed from Northern Ireland in the first few hours of fighting. At the end of the battle, there were around 420,000 British casualties. (This number includes the Irish dead and injured.) Ultimately, over a million men were killed or wounded. On the first day of the attack alone, there were 5,500 casualties from the 36th Ulster Division who were solely drawn from one community in Ulster. This goes some way to explaining how two civilian cinematographers found themselves and their equipment on the front lines. Filming a battle or war effort was still relatively unusual at this time. The film was created by two commercial cameramen, Geoffrey Malins and John MacDowell, under military supervision. In 1915, the British Government had sold the film rights to the war on the Western Front to a small group of commercial news film companies. The film was not produced by the government or the military but it was approved by them. This has led to some questioning of the bias and trustworthiness of the edited footage.

Filming began in late June and continued to the 10th of July, taking in the brutal first day that saw 19,000 British soldiers die. Malins detailed his experiences in a fascinating book called How I Filmed the War (1919). The book encompasses his Christmas spent on the Front, multiple arrests, being reported dead, attempting to film under heavy shellfire, the difficult trench conditions and a collision with a rather obstructive mule.

Somme-film-ad

The silent black and white film is overlaid with a piano score as it captures the preparations being made for the upcoming attack. It includes soldiers marching to their positions, images of well-treated German prisoners, men preparing their weapons, religious services and long shots of No Man’s Land. Information panels hint at success when they inform the viewers that “high explosive shells fired by the 12-inch howitzers created havoc in the enemy’s lines”. The film also explicitly tries to tie the viewers back home, involved in the war effort, to the direct effect of their hard work. This can be seen from the information panel stating “along the entire front the munition ‘dumps’ are receiving vast supplies of shells: thanks to the British munitions workers”.

The preparations take up the first 30 minutes of the 75 minute film. After this, the action moves onto the battle itself. One of the earliest images is particularly famous: the soldiers all rushing over the top except for one man who seems to stumble; then the audience realises that he is dead, face down in the mud. Other men struggle to make it through their own barbed wire and some indeed are shot down. There’s footage of men sitting by the side of a road, armed with bayonets and grinning at the camera. A mere 20 minutes after this section was filmed, they came under heavy machine gun fire. The bravery of the soldiers is shown alongside the wounded on stretchers.

It is strange to think that the men who lived, worked and died in the trenches, who would climb over the sandbags into No Man’s Land, would also be requested at some point to act out the process that would shortly leave many of them dead.

At about 55 minutes in, the camera takes in the dead bodies that litter the Somme. It is important to note that some of the footage was staged, including one of the key scenes depicting men going over the top. This was controversial and damaged the filmmakers claims of realism. Also, there is little actual combat footage. It is strange to think that the men who lived, worked and died in the trenches, and who would climb over the sandbags into No Man’s Land, would also be requested at some point to act out the process that would shortly leave many of them dead.

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The film premiered in London on the 10th of August 1916 before its general release on the 21st of August. Why was it shown before victory had been sealed? There is no definite reason for this. It is very possible that this was done to try and counteract the tide of negative information making its way across the channel. However tightly controlled the media had been, they could not stop news of the huge numbers of casualties from making its way home. Presumably, as the authorities had not expected any opposition, they might have hoped that the battle would be swift and victorious.

Within the first six weeks of its general release, The Battle of the Somme had been shown in around 2,000 British cinemas reaching a probable audience of 20 million people (i.e. half the population of Britain). It is one of the most attended films of all time. King George V is reported to have said, “The public should see these pictures that they may have some idea of what the army is doing and what it means”. It seems even by this point there was a general weariness to the bombardment of propaganda and the film may have been designed to try to counteract this. This is reflected in the headline chosen for The Manchester Guardian front page: ‘The Real Thing At Last!’, as the realism shown in the film proved deeply shocking, if not traumatic, for many. Newspapers reported how some fled cinemas screaming at the sight of the dead. One London cinema placed a sign outside stating: ‘We are not showing The Battle of the Somme. This is a place of amusement, not a chamber of horrors’.

Ground breaking during its day, The Battle of the Somme remains as a remarkable work, having gone on to influence generations of documentary filmmakers and journalists. It marked a movement towards a more involved, visual form of war reportage, with journalists and cinematographers risking their lives alongside soldiers in battle in order to capture the events for posterity. The considerable viewership numbers also suggest a thirst to better understand the realities of war from those left behind, and foreshadows the future use and form of mass media propaganda. Even after 100 years, the film is still at times difficult, upsetting and shocking, taking the viewer as close as it is possible to be to the realities of life and war on the Western Front.

The death of Shakespeare: where, when, how?

First Published on Headstuff.ie April 2016

April 23rd 2016 is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Although his plays and poems have lived on and are enjoyed across the globe, relatively little is known for certain about the man himself. This is particularly so for the matters surrounding his death.

Death, violent and natural, occurs frequently in the plays. This was both a way of bringing the story to a close, while also drawing on the perilous nature of life 400 years ago. At the end of Hamlet, one of the greatest meditations on life and death, the title character has to die to bring an end to his story. As he himself says in his last words, “the rest is silence”. However the death and afterlife of Hamlet’s creator has been less clear-cut. The way in which he actually died is still not established, and in a twist to the tale his remains have, in a way, lived on and created a story of their own.

He died in his home town of Stratford–Upon–Avon, Warwickshire in England, where he had been living with his family. The cause of death is not certain. However the most popular theory emerged from a diary entry written by John Ward, a clergyman living in Stratford in the 1660s, who recorded that:

“Shakespear, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting, and itt seems drank too hard, for Shakespear died of a feavour there contracted”

The famous writer Ben Jonson had recently been selected as Poet Laureate, and the slightly less famous Drayton is most likely to be the Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton. Either way it seems as though the trio made up a raucous group, enjoying the company and drinking more than a little too much. At present there are no other sources that corroborate this idea, and it is worth noting that this diary entry was made several decades after Shakespeare’s death as Ward tried to familiarise himself with the life of a local celebrity.

Nasty, brutish and short

There is another main contender as to the cause of his death. Life in the early seventeenth century was often short. Death from disease was a very likely possibility for many. Indeed, Shakespeare was lucky to survive infancy, as the plague swept through Stratford, just three months after his birth, killing around one fifth of the town’s population. This is marked in the church’s burial register with the words Hic incepit pestis (here begins the plague). The year of the Bard’s death, 1616, saw a serious outbreak of typhoid fever across England. Shakespeare might have been at greater risk as an open sewer ran close by his town house, New Place, and typhoid is born of poor sanitary conditions.

Shakespeare was then buried inside Holy Trinity Church. His unusual epitaph is a curse written in verse:

“Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, 

To dig the dust enclosed here.

Blessed be the man that spares these stones,

And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

From history buff.com

The afterlife of Shakespeare’s remains have developed their own story of intrigue, as the warning on his gravestone might not have always been heeded. Legend has it that the skull was stolen as a part of a 300 guinea bet in the late 1700s. This theory emerged from two articles written in Argosy magazine. The first article, written in 1879, stated that in 1769 the art historian Horace Walpole offered 300 guineas to anyone who could bring him Shakespeare’s skull. A Doctor Frank Chambers embraced this challenge and broke into the tomb. Having stolen the skull he presented it to Walpole, who then failed to hand over the money for it. Unable to find a buyer for the playwright’s skull, Chambers arranged for its return. All of this seemingly went on unnoticed by the wider world.

The later 1884 article titled ‘How Shakespeare’s Skull was Stolen and Found’ picks up the story with Chambers being unable to sell the skull, and argues that the grave robber panicked and instead of returning it hid it in a local crypt. This explains why many believe Shakespeare’s skull lies in St Leonard’s Church, Beoley, Worcestershire. Although the authorship of the articles has not been confirmed (in the magazine they were labelled as having been written by ‘A Warwickshire Man’) they are thought to have been penned by a Reverend C. K. Langston, who was a vicar in Beoley from 1881 to 1889.

Beoley is around 15 miles from Stratford and has not benefitted in the same way from the tourism industry that has built up over the centuries around Shakespeare’s birthplace. The Langston theory is typical of the Victorian love of the gothic and historical revisionism, which also coincided with a boom in the grave-robbing industry. A request to remove the skull temporarily for DNA testing was refused in 2015.

Recently there was another twist to the tale, when investigations were conducted for a Channel 4 documentary in the UK. For the first time archaeological investigations were carried out using non-invasive, ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to examine the grave site. Their findings were fascinating, to say the least, and some of the results are quite unusual. One of the first things the investigators noticed was that Shakespeare is in fact buried three feet deep, and wrapped in a shroud rather than placed in a coffin. They also found evidence of significant repair works that have been done but not recorded. This tells us that the grave had been disturbed at some point to the extent that new underground supports were needed to prevent it from caving in. Perhaps this damage was done by grave robbers working hastily in the dark to extract their prize? Significantly there is also reasonable evidence to assume that his skull is missing, or at least not buried with the body.

Although it looks unlikely that the custodians of Holy Trinity Church will ever allow the curse to be tempted and the grave opened against Shakespeare’s wishes, it is clear that speculation will persevere.

The riddle of Shakespeare’s death and afterlife will continue to intrigue.